Saint Vincent’s Reading List LXV:  Vincent de Paul and the Hôpital Général of Paris

L’Hospital General Charitable. A Paris: Chez Charles Savreux, 1657.

Call Number: SpC. 362.110944 H828s1657

Title page of L'Hospital General Charitable
Title page of the 1657 prospectus.

This broadside is the 1657 public prospectus for the establishment of the famous Hôpital Général of Paris by Louis XIV.  In the middle years of the seventeenth century, the cumulative effects of decades of continental war, civil war, civil unrest, famine, climate change and forced migration brought waves of French peasants from the countryside to the cities, especially Paris.  These urban areas were ill equipped to deal with this influx.  The streets and slums of Paris filled with the homeless, the unemployed, abandoned foundlings, bereft families, the handicapped, the mentally ill, the neglected elderly, and beggars.

Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac, and their followers, grouped into the Ladies of Charity, the Daughters of Charity, the Confraternities of Charity, and the Congregation of the Mission, had developed a specialization of providing charity with a scope and scale that was institutional and professional but whose delivery of services remained profoundly human and personal.

Some elements of the Church, State and French Society felt threatened by the uncontrolled influx of poor country people into Paris. To make sense of what these groups knew to be their obligation as Christians to care for the poor, combined with the sense of fear and dread they had of these people, there was much talk in these circles about the perceived distinctions between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor.

Poor people who were supposedly poor through their own fault had to be controlled, punished and corrected.  Poor people who were supposedly poor through no fault of their own were to receive assistance but only under tightly controlled conditions.  The solution was to create the Hôpital Général where all the poor of Paris who wanted to receive aid would have to reside as a condition for receiving any assistance.  The law would then ban private assistance and public begging.

When the establishment of the hospital became public through this prospectus, Vincent de Paul was astonished to learn that “under the authority of the Archbishop of Paris, the missionary Fathers of Saint-Lazare will have charge of the spiritual care of the hospital because of their proven expertise. The daughters of the community of Mademoiselle LeGras whose effectiveness is also well known will have charge of care of the women.”

This announcement put Vincent de Paul in a very public bind since he had grave personal misgivings about the hospital and its mission, especially since the poor people interned there would have to give up their freedom in order to receive assistance.

In this situation, Vincent de Paul gave evidence of his prudence and political adroitness as he deflected this unwanted responsibility.  In the end, Vincent expressed no public doubts as to the mission and structure of the new institution.  He undoubtedly sensed the proposal was flawed enough to fail on its own. The founder simply pointed out that the two communities were already fully committed to their existing obligations, and could spare no members for this new responsibility.[1]  He also offered to help find alternative ways to staff the hospital.

[1] See for example Coste, CCD: 6:257-258, 268-269, 274-275.

St. Vincent’s Reading List is a recurring blog series exploring texts known to have been read and recommended by Saint Vincent de Paul, those which can be presumed to have been read by him, and works published during his lifetime (1581-1660) illustrating his world. All materials discussed are held by DePaul University’s John T. Richardson Library. The entire series may be viewed here.

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